“The Girl on the Train” is a strange excursion into the tackiest of subject matters: the sort that builds its leads up into objects of a misogynist agenda that is extremely mean-spirited, even by definitions of any normal thriller about sex and violence. That also means what we observe is colored by a direction and performances that are far more perceptive than they should be; professionals fill the foreground in order to sell this story to an interested audience, and their pitch is legitimate. But as one is driven to marvel at the resonant clarity of conviction in the work of Emily Blunt and her eager co-stars, we become far too attached to situations that are destined to play out in a manner that leaves us feeling creepy rather than intrigued. It’s easy to feel sympathy for characters that clearly have the cards stacked against them, but another thing entirely to watch them become victims of relentless torment.
The film mirrors an underlying notion most famously seen in “What Lies Beneath,” a thriller from the late 90, which told the story of a wife seeking answers about a deceased woman who may have been her husband’s mistress. I had only vigorous loathing for that endeavor, perhaps for reasons that are not entirely unlike those that restrict my embrace of this one: when a narrative seems more interested in demeaning its female subjects and making one-dimensional villains out of their male peers, part of me tunes out in protest. Drama and good writing only go so far when a tone heaves the stench of questionable judgment. As I watched ‘The Girl on the Train” for an exhausting two hours, my fascination with many of the film’s merits was muddied by a feeling that all of it lacked a fair purpose. These are not people in a story about simple misunderstandings, but targets of systematic spite that have little to go for them other than a shared intellect that might eventually unite them after long passages of vicious dialogue and violent dismissals. No matter how an ending might have turned out, my patience was long gone before a climax was a feasible form of relief.
Consider some of these details. The film is about three troubled women: Rachel (Emily Blunt), a former housewife who was cheated on, abandoned and now exists to peep in on others’ private lives, usually while drinking heavily and looking pathetic; Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), a new mother whose marriage is the result of said infidelity; and Megan (Haley Bennett), her distant babysitter, who also doubles as a sexually promiscuous young girl. The early scenes introduce them in vignettes that suggest narrow histories, until emerging details force them to interact in all of the urgent ways. Because Rachel’s divorce from Tom came after relentless alcoholism and an inability to carry a child, their fragmented relationship serves to aggravate Anna, the mistress-turned-wife, who conveniently recalls a horrifying memory between Rachel and her infant just as the momentum gets going. Megan’s involvement in the situation is uncertain beyond superficial symbolism, but gradual details of her own private life serve as a contrast of that danger; When Rachel’s prying eyes mistake an interaction she shares with her psychiatrist, it leads to her wandering into her old neighborhood on the same night that Megan disappears without a trace.
Who was the responsible party? In a classic scenario that Hitchcock called the “innocent man wrongfully accused,” suspicious eyes fall directly on poor sad Rachel, whose entire existence seems to implicate her as the obsessive drunk that can’t be trusted with credible details. A vague recollection of being there persists in the blurred edges of her mind, sure, but without a concrete recollection, what hope does that provide her for a sound defense? The movie works through all of the obligatory plot clichés to assess the situation from the necessary angles, but what many of them amount to is something one-note – usually she is looked at as crazy and stupid by legal authorities (including a sneering investigator played by Allison Janney), opportunistic by Megan’s distraught boyfriend or too destructive by former friends and loved ones for anyone to take stock in her pleas of innocence. Some of the dismissals are done so coldly in the dialogue that even someone who might find her puzzling would be saddened by her misfortune; the degree of the situation turns her into an unfortunate pin cushion, and casts all of the other characters – some of them genuine – in lights that are neither flattering nor tolerable.
That may very well be the most unfortunate reality of “The Girl on the Train” – these actors are often riveting in these scenes, selling the situations like dedicated followers who are fixated on their faith in the material. One cannot blame our feelings on any of their antics; that responsibility falls to their director, Tate Taylor, who orchestrates this story with a skill that is undermined by his uncaring temperament. Is that a problem more seasoned filmmakers could have overcome? It’s hard to say. Perhaps if the material had been targeted at straightforward drama, with no inkling to have a fragmented mystery to overwhelm the mood, we might have been able to accept the misfortune of the leads. But the intrigue requires too many of the devices to create tone-deaf dismissals of the women’s feelings; Rachel is made the pariah in a dance of unending nihilism, Meghan is used long enough to become a sex object and then a potential casualty of domineering passion, and Anna is left to build a shell of identity by, well, pretending that she matters in a house created by a couple she helped destroy.
Where exactly is the thrill in that, or even the intrigue? The movie is a crude exercise of its sentiments. Many will habitually challenge that idea, I guess, because the material is based on a celebrated source – a book by Paula Hawkins that has swept the literary world in recent times. So what, I ask? Does that validate the result of this cinematic translation? Perhaps no more than “Twilight” or “Fifty Shades of Grey” are warranted in a movie climate that ravenously covets yarns about the sexual exploits of women at the mercy of domineering male figures. The greatest of ironies, you could say, is that all three stories were penned by women, suggesting a new wave of feministic sentiment that I am not yet well versed in. Is the idea of putting these characters through the ringer a sound impulse if they are promised some kind of respite in the final act? Am I missing something important, or are the filmmakers themselves trying to rationalize it all from a perspective equally as removed. “The Girl on the Train” certainly rises above its peers as a picture of technical and performance merits, but it is impossible to deal with on any level when one is left feeling personally abused after two hours.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Mystery/Thriller (US); 2016; Rated R; Running Time: 112 Minutes
Emily Blunt: Rachel
Haley Bennett: Megan
Rebecca Ferguson: Anna
Justin Theroux: Tom
Luke Evans: Scott
Edgar Ramirez: Dr. Kamal Abdic
Laura Prepon: Cathy
Allison Janney: Detective Riley
Produced by Holly Bario, Celia Costas, Deb Dyer, Jared LeBoff and Marc Platt; Directed by Tate Taylor; Written by Eric Cressida Wilson; based on the novel by Paula Hawkins